(all photos by Rick Rodney)
Not to be all LA and vain and superficial, but Chelsea Wolfe‘s complexion is like a cold glass of whole milk. And her voice — it sounds like how it feels to gulp down said beverage, or maybe a White Russian, on a sweltering summer day, inducing the kind of savage, glugging sounds that offend some types of people (not our kind of people), sitting cross-legged and bra-less on an abandoned rooftop in Detroit, wearing nothing but a virginal vintage slip dress, partially-laced combat boots, chipped red nail polish, and an armload of clinking bracelets stacked almost to the elbow. (I guess, although I’ve never been to Detroit.)
Standing in a fluorescent-lit corridor of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, it’s hard not to stare at Chelsea. She is tall and pale and piercing, her jet black hair, feathery fur coat and generously-inked eyeliner are dark and elegant like a crow’s plumes; her shadowy silhouette broken only by a plastic cup containing a Barbie-pink cocktail that she holds in skull-ringed hands. Cramped between the main stage and “backstage,” which is more like a modest sitting area with nothing pretty to look at (present company excepted) and more often frequented by a totally different kind of worshipper, Chelsea and I talk death, John Cusack, Fashion Week, and superstition. She is on tour with her latest album Unknown Rooms: A Collection Of Acoustic Songs, and with moody vocals that instinctively oscillate between frozen and hearth-like, turning us to ice and then soothing our goosebumps, it is fair to say that on a rainy Friday evening in an unassuming Church in a no-good block of Los Angeles, Chelsea Wolfe is pretty much perfect. Even without the plastic bottle of vodka in my purse. Read on for the the full interview:
Since I’m awkward, I’m going to start out this interview with a story that makes me sound like a stalker. Today was rainy and gloomy and I was under blankets listening to Unknown Rooms and thinking about how when I hear your music I picture you wearing a flowing dress and walking into the water, and how much that visual reminds of the movie The Hours. Then, I saw one of your songs is called “Virginia Woolf Underwater” and I was really tripped out. What’s that’s about?
I’ve used that image of me walking into the water two times now. One of my earlier influences as a girl was literature. Writers, poets, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath. I definitely related to them in their familiar darkness, and way of understanding the world. I think that image is something that has been burned into my mind. Both directors I’ve worked with have caught onto that. I didn’t suggest it, they came up with it. It’s interesting that you picked up on that, too.
Sort of a morbid fascination?
I definitely have a sort of obsession, well maybe not as much of an obsession as an infatuation, with death. One of the first films I was really taken aback by and drawn to is the The Seventh Seal. The character of death is so distinct and specific, and I was always really attracted to, and inspired by, that. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to never experience the death of anyone close to me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve still never experienced it. I guess I’ve become infatuated with it, the experience of what it would be like to lose someone, and what it would be like to die, and just dealing with all of that. That’s probably why a lot of my songs deal with death, because I’ve never dealt with it and I’m still trying to understand it.
I get that. Trying to figure out what it all means. Are you a superstitious person? Do you believe in signs?
I find myself being superstitious, and then the reasonable side of me will kick in and try and stomp that out. I definitely have an inclination toward being superstitious, but I try not to be. I try to look at things in a reasonable and truthful way.
Is there anything special or symbolic for you about performing in a church? I feel like it’s the perfect venue for you.
Well, honestly, it was always a dream to play in unconventional spaces. I always wanted to do a tour of churches and funeral homes. This tour happened to book a lot of old churches, which I was really happy with. Especially the Unitarian church, because it’s not as religious, and there isn’t a big cross behind me, and there’s not as many religious connotations. It’s more about a unique, beautiful space to play in, and the acoustics are really nice. I’m really interested in playing in any sort of unique and interesting space. Traditional venues are nice sometimes, but I really like to change things up with spaces like this.
Are you religious?
No. I consider myself a spiritual person, in the sense that I want to recognize that there’s a spiritual realm and that there’s something else going on. It’s not specific. There’s not any particular religion that I grew up with.
Do you ever feel limited creatively? Are you interested in pursuing other creative outlets?
I don’t feel limited, because I feel like anyone can try any art form if they want. I’m not very talented as far as painting and drawing, and I really admire people who are. I don’t feel held back by that, though. I love photography and video, it’s definitely something I explore in my free time. I don’t think I’m great at it, but it’s fun for me to do something that’s more visual and more hands on in that way. Generally, when I write music, I don’t think about it being for this album or that album, I just write in a really instinctual, natural way. Once the song is finished, it might fit in a certain album, or it might not. I have a lot of songs that just sit there forever on my recorder or my computer or wherever it was recorded.
What kind of visuals and images are you drawn to?
I really love stuff that’s raw. I’ve always loved Nan Goldin’s style of photography. It’s so real. Not always the most perfect or beautiful image, but you can find so much beauty it in if you think about it and look more closely. I love a lot of different directors for different reasons. Ingmar Bergman, for the stark feel of it. And John Waters is so fun, flamboyant, and colorful. I’m interested in a wide range of visuals, literature and art. I really just experiment. Maybe one day I’ll try and do something serious with it.
Your aesthetic is sort of synonymous with you as an artist and a musician. Each image I see of you is really powerful. Is that important to you, the visual image that you portray?
Yea. It hasn’t always been very purposeful, and it’s still usually not. I don’t go into a photoshoot thinking about it. I haven’t done many videos, so I don’t think about that, but usually with photos I’m trying to tell a story. I’m not thinking about trying to match an image up with my music, I’m really just experimenting.
I happen to have a lot of really good friends who are great photographers, so it’s been really fun to experiment with them, and sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes it turns out looking really powerful. It’s been years of experimenting and having fun with photographer friends.
Any dream collaborations?
Oh man. So many. I’d love to do soundtracks with Werner Herzog, his soundtracks are always amazing. I’d also love to do something with someone who is probably harder to reach, like Vincent Gallo. The possibilities are endless. I don’t limit myself in any capacity and I’m always very open to whatever comes my way.
Any surprising or unexpected career twists living in LA, the land of the celebrity?
Not in any celebrity sense. It’s definitely been good for me to live here, I’ve been here for about two years.
Ugh. I didn’t really mean to say celebrity, that kind of just slipped out. Oh god, I just sounded like one of those sleazy journalists asking if you’ve fucked any famous people. But have you fucked any famous people?
I know what you meant though, I was trying to think of something for you. Well, someone said that John Cusack was coming tonight, so that’s kind of rad and funny. In reality though, moving to LA has been really good for me because people like to get things done here. That’s my mindset as well. I like to work, I like to work fast, I like to get things done, and record a lot of things, and do a lot of projects at once. I’ve found a lot of people here are in the same mind frame, that’s probably why since I’ve moved here I’ve been doing more touring and visual art. I’ve come across a lot of great people who feel that way and have similar interests.
I think that’s interesting that you feel that way, because I’m born and raised in LA and I feel kind of opposite.
I guess I’ve been kind of lucky with my record label Sargent House
. I was really fortunate to start working with them about a year after I moved out here. They’re all about getting shit done and moving forward, and they’re really down to earth. My manager Cathy Pellow has been a dream to work with. My experience here has been great so far.
Do you remember the moment in your career when you all of the sudden realized that people were starting to take notice?
Maybe just when I started touring more. Before, I didn’t really have the confidence or the means to go on tour for long periods of time. Now that I’ve been doing that consistently, I’ve noticed that I’m better able to connect with people. When you see someone perform live you can connect with them and talk to them. It’s been a gradual thing, playing more and going to more cities.
Is it bizarre to have a dark and moody and brooding and gothy stage persona, and then to be this sweet, soft-spoken, non-intimating person in real life?
I guess I don’t personally feel like I come across as cold. Or maybe I do, and I just don’t really notice. I definitely am a moody person, so that’s true to life. Sometimes it’s frustrating, because I can go up and down so fast. But, generally, I really like people and appreciate when they come to shows, and want to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me.
What’s the deal with that piece of jewelry? (referring to piece on nose)
It’s just this piece from Margiela that I fell in love with and hunted down in the store. It’s like the only thing I’ve spent money on in the last few years. I hardly ever spend money, but I fell in love with this thing and had to have it. It’s just so cool.
You’re obviously into fashion. Are you bummed out that you’re not at Fashion Week?
I don’t think I would do very well there. I would go play a show, if I was offered. I was actually invited to play a show, but it was tonight. I don’t do well with crowds when I don’t have a specific purpose. I don’t think I’d do well just wandering around, I’m not very good at just hanging out. I like to be working and doing something creative. I definitely love clothes. I’m not always hip to exactly what’s in fashion, but I love clothes and silhouettes and discovering different designers that I really love. I think there’s so much good shit out there right now, from Etsy to what’s on the runway right now.